Killing Nazis has been the central action of many video games, namely Bethesda Softworks' "Wolfenstein" series.
But until "Wolfenstein: Youngblood," no game has made that action feel so much like exterminating insects.
On the surface, that's good. They're Nazis. They should be wiped from existence, ruinous invaders that they are. But further consideration of the way "Youngblood" presents Nazism as mere pestilence invites some criticism, if only because its bigotry and fascist ideology continue to be far more persistent in real life. (More on that later though.)
Unfortunately, "Youngblood's" ability to make killing Nazis feel like squashing bugs is also the most redeeming part of the latest game in Bethesda's reboot of the classic first-person shooter series.
Your enemies feel that way because the game departs from the linear rampage format of predecessors like 2014's "The New Order" and 2017's "The New Colossus." Instead, as the twin daughters of former protagonist and Hitler killer B.J. Blazkowicz, you revisit the same areas of 1980s Nazi-occupied Paris several times over in "Youngblood." When their father suddenly disappears in search of a secret Nazi laboratory there, Jessica and Sophia link up with the French resistance to rescue him. You play as one, your co-op partner or AI as the other.
The twins' campaign is short, comprising about half a dozen missions. But the game introduces a leveling system to "Wolfenstein," so you have to knock off side missions until you're strong enough to storm the Fourth Reich's defenses. As you revisit the game's Parisian streets, though, their occupying Nazi forces respawn. Sometimes new waves appear when you simply advance to the next area, then double back. And when they do, you may find yourself unloading on them with the furious prejudice of a homeowner who thought they'd already gotten the last cockroach.
You have free articles remaining.
As ever with Bethesda's "Wolfenstein" series, the shooting derives its thrills from being so damn frenetic. "Youngblood" also introduces a new strategic wrinkle by giving enemies two types of armor that are vulnerable to different ammunition, encouraging you to pause and switch weapons often. But the encounter design isn't so inspired. Despite allowing Jess and Soph to cloak themselves, ram through Nazis like tanks and leap 20 feet into the air, the game's action all too frequently devolves into the same grind, one attritional shoot-out after another.
Only the game's final boss, a difficulty spike of übermenschean proportions, feels truly unique from the rest of the Nazi shooting gallery. But the battle also exposes the limited appeal of "Youngblood" as a single-player experience. Its AI isn't terribly sophisticated, so you can only revive your idiot partner so many times before realizing the game would be better with a second player.
The surprise reveal of that final boss is also the only time the game recaptures the cinematic weight of recent "Wolfenstein" games. Stripped of its side missions, "Youngblood" feels like less than half of a full narrative arc. Still, as a budget summer game, it's agreeably substantive. And it sets up a fun premise for the proper sequel to "The New Colossus."
I'd like to see the next "Wolfenstein" remind us just what we're fighting for, though.
With its soundtrack of '80s synths and scenes of Jess and Soph pranking each other on elevator rides up Nazi fortresses, "Youngblood" has the makings of camp. In that respect, it's similar to another work of Nazi-exterminating art in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds." But where Tarantino also depicted just how evil his insects were, "Youngblood" goes in the other direction. Without spoiling too much, it delves further into the fantastical mythology of the series, including ideas from yet another cornerstone of Fourth Reich fiction, "The Man in the High Castle."
Much as it resembles other works with Nazis, however, "Youngblood" treats them too much like any other bad guy. If there's more pleasure in massacring them than demons or aliens, it's only because we come armed with our own righteous prejudice. But the game dangerously overlooks what makes them so contemptible — and why they keep coming back.